Many seek, and find, answers to these questions online. In a strong display of neighbors helping neighbors, in winter months many here turn to Facebook groups for information about road conditions. Two groups are dedicated to Route 9 road conditions, and a newly minted group focuses on road conditions on Route 100.
Those who may need to get to or from Bennington head over to Searsburg/Woodford Road Conditions, a group started five years ago by Mike Johnson, who serves on the Searsburg Selectboard and lives atop the stretch of Route 9 between Bennington and Wilmington that the group focuses on. Johnson says he started the group after noticing a lot of people asking one another for updates via Facebook.
“I never expected it to get as big as it has,” says Johnson. “I have representatives and others from the state in the group, VTrans employees, firemen, rescue people, many hospital employees, police, and many citizens in the group. It helps everyone.”
The Searsburg/Woodford Road Conditions group has over 900 members who share information and use it to make informed decisions about how, when, and where to travel. The Eastern Route 9 Road Conditions group, which is dedicated to Route 9 between Wilmington and Brattleboro, has over 1,600 members.
Karl Isselhardt, co-administrator of the Eastern Route 9 group, says his group was directly inspired by Johnson’s group when, after starting to commute from Bennington to Brattleboro daily a few years ago, Isselhardt relied heavily on the Searsburg/Woodford Road Conditions group. “It was amazingly helpful that first winter,” says Isselhardt. “There wasn’t a similar group for the stretch from Wilmington to Brattleboro, so I made one.”
Isselhardt’s co-administrator, Allison Turner, says she is a firefighter and an EMT, and information shared in the groups can help her predict when she may need to go help with an accident. Members of the groups post about road conditions, including what speeds traffic is moving at, whether the roads are slippery, whether there have been any accidents, and, whether the roads are open. Tractor-trailers jackknifing or going off the road often cause the roads to close. Chain-up requirements for tractor-trailers are also shared on the groups.
Johnson says he was surprised when, last year, Rep. Laura Sibilia contacted him about the group.
Sibilia says in her view, groups like the one Johnson created are important for a variety of reasons.
“The conditions can change so quickly that residents and frequent travelers have created a pretty remarkable communications network to advise each other on travel of the road,” says Sibilia. “The two (Route 9) groups are high-functioning, citizen-led adaptations to living rurally. They are critical networks binding southern Vermont together.”
Sibilia says that the information shared in the groups provides a narrative about the unique challenges of life in southern Vermont. “It is important for policy makers to know that citizens in southern Vermont traveling to work, school, and loved ones regularly face unpredictable conditions on Route 9 in the winter, including road closures,” says Sibilia. “That is less a statement about state road crews and more a statement about the rural nature and the steep and winding topography of Route 9, which includes the microclimate atop Searsburg Mountain.”
Johnson stresses that his group is not a forum for negative talk about road crews. “(The road crews) work hard at trying to keep it as clear as they can, at all hours of the night and in the worst conditions,” says Johnson. “Bashing them only creates drama and hate.”
Dover Economic Development director Steve Neratko, who relocated to the area this past summer, said although he hails from the Buffalo, NY area and is no stranger to snow, the notion that roads may become impassable is a unique challenge of living in southern Vermont. Neratko has used both of the Route 9 groups as resources and recently started the group dedicated to Route 100 road conditions.
“Being that there are only a few ways in and out of Bennington and Brattleboro, it is nice to check the weather and road conditions prior to leaving,” says Neratko. “Seeing as there are a lot of people who travel Route 100, especially from Wilmington to the ski resorts, hopefully this will be useful to them as well.”
Johnson says that although the groups are not a magic fix to road conditions, in his experience things have improved since the groups began fostering communication. He notes that, to his knowledge, so far this year his stretch of Route 9 has only been closed once, and no serious injuries have been reported.
“In the almost 20 years I have lived on this mountain I have seen a lot of accidents,” says Johnson. “Some were real bad and people were seriously injured or died. Conditions on these mountains can change at a blink of an eye, so it is important that people have access to up-to-date reliable information.”
Johnson says he and Isselhardt check in with each other often and belong to one another’s groups. “I like to think that together we are making a difference and saving lives,” says Johnson.
Johnson says the success of the groups is directly linked to those who participate in them.
“My group would not be a success if it wasn’t for the people in the group posting real-time updates and answering questions while being civil about it,” says Johnson.